I sit here on Sunday, listening to the bells calling people to church. It is 11am. Nothing happens on a weekend before 11am! (During the week, nothing happens until 9.30. I love these lazy mornings, as does the rest of Britain). I once went to a Christmas market on a Saturday, and in my South African style, I was on the go quite late..like at 10am, where I was shocked to realize that people were still setting up and half the stalls were not there yet. I thought they were packing up and I was too late. But I was too early! Many weekend things only start at 1pm. But I digress.
Britain has many many churches, cathedrals and places of worship. You cant miss them if you tried. From the presence of stone circles and other pagan sites, it has a long History of spirituality. You cant go anywhere without encountering the remnants of a spiritual Britain. Most are very old..from 3000BC (Stonehenge) to mostly the middle ages, with a few more Victorian and Georgian churches.( Notably I have only seen a few usually quite ugly looking modern churches.) But Remnants is the key word. Yes, the bells peal out on Sundays (and all day on the queens birthday) and many people still go to church. Much is made of the olde religion by preserving the old sites. But how spiritual is Britain, really.
ANCIENT SITES OF WORSHIP
I have already written about some of the ancient sites in Britain, and my search for the ancient spirituality. Stonehenge is now a lucrative tourist site surrounded by fences, charging a lot to get in, with a modern museum put together by National heritage to give an impression of how things had been, and not allowing you the freedom to decide for yourself and be amazed, because its all so logical and practical..a piece of history, not a piece of mystery.
Ordinary people are allowed to worship here only ONE day a year, on the summer solstice without charge. I decided that I would like to go, but discovered that they had levied a charge for parking that was THE SAME AS THE ENTRANCE FEE! Why bother. A site of Human history has been annexed. The reason given is to protect the site. Avebury, which is a stunning place, open to all, all the time. Despite this does not get damaged, so I don’t really understand this reasoning. Many long barrows are open to the public without charge. However, there are lesser known circles that are not as dramatic, although some stones are just as large. At the solstice, they are used by modern day “pagans” for rituals, and I observed a quiet one of these at the Rollright stones. There is a fairly big pagan following, but they are not overt at all. You have to be in the in crowd to know what is happening.
Wales, I am told, have modern day clairvoyants, many of whom lead quiet and unknown lives.
THE GREEN MAN, MORRIS DANCING AND MUMMERS PLAYS
In many places in England you see images of the green man. Seen as a symbol of spiritual regeneration, also pan the god of plant growth. Certainly England is that land. I have not yet visited Findhorn in Scotland, but I am told that there is still a thriving community that believes in elemental beings,although it now has a touristy edge to it. Nowadays, the only elves and fairies are these that live in peoples gardens or immortalized in a plaque to the fairies of Cottingley.
See also my previous posts on Morris dancing and Mummers plays, usually done around Christmas and new year. Often in pubs or on the street. These often include the theme of rebirth and karma, but in a humorous way. Characters include st George and the dragon and the green man. On the whole people enjoy these but the significance eludes most people, and they are just fun (and slightly weird to most) occasions. A British quirk.
The Romans were Pantheists and very religious in their own right, with even homes having sacred places dedicated to the gods. The water spring was especially important. The Roman Baths in Bath, was connected to a temple, where people came to have prayers made to their gods and goddesses. Now you pay a lot to get into them (but not into the water, which, for health and safety reasons is bad for you now, but was good for you then..however, over the road is a rooftop health spa where you can get in at an even higher price..an hour at a time). Also run by National Trust, it is made to re-enact what is thought of to have happened there..complete with commentary that hangs around your neck. You cannot worship there, but people do throw coins into the sacred spring and make wishes. As mentioned before in my previous posts, many Roman remains are covered up by soil and grass, used by cows, golfers and dog walkers in order to “protect them”
CHURCHES CHURCHES EVERYWHERE
Bill Bryson makes the fact that it would take 11000 years to visit all the sites in Britain, and most of them are churches. This is true. Christianity has been around since even before the Romans left in 500AD. That is just short of 1500 years. That’s a long time. In that time, 37 501 churches have been built. You see what I mean. Some cathedrals are enormous and very elaborate. Gloucester cathedral and York cathedral were used as stage sets in Harry potter.
Some are used in the pomp and ceremony of royalty and commemorating the war. Most of these churches are empty for most of the week, and church numbers have been declining from traditional churches. However, many new and more evangelical churches are taking over or are using the unused times of old ones, as I encountered in London, where there was a moving and enthusiastic service in an old church of England. I went there to send prayers to Amani and his family after he had been killed. Mostly churches are seen as tourist attractions and are maintained on tourist donations. It is good that most churches are open every day and anyone can walk in and say a prayer and light a candle. This is where they are most used. Modern art works in old churches.
Built after the Anglo Saxons invaded Britain, ie from 500AD to 1066 when the Normans invaded. These are the most unadorned and often least visited churches. In the medieval era, many churches were built, as well as monasteries and Abbeys. Some are still used this way, others are ruins. Many catholic churches and cathedrals were elaborate and wealthy. With the protestant movement, many of the inner artifacts were destroyed, but the spectacular buildings remain.
The Knights Templar and the holy grail and the legends of king Arthur has Christian leanings with an esoteric edge. I have not yet visited Rosslyn chapel, said to be the site of the holy grail in Scotland. I have visited Tintagel (see a previous post), and despite the fact that it also is run by National Trust, it remains a haunting area in its own right. But if you read what is said about it, the mystery is destroyed, as it is described as “just a legend”.
The prevailing feeling is that what you see of spirituality in Britain,are simply skeletal remains of a previously vibrant spirituality.
SCIENTIFIC SECULARITY AND THE NEW PAGANS
Scientific secularity is the prevailing trend in Britain today following the French who try desperately to make every thing equal, and end up making humanity bland and uniform.In Britain few people admit to anything else if they are to be taken seriously. One of the loudest Brit who promotes this is atheist and sought after scientific speaker, Richard Dawkins. Fortunately he is countered by the equally gifted scientific speaker, Rupert Sheldrake who argues for a spirituality in science equally, if not more so than Dawkins. But people are uneasy about Sheldrake.
Stroud is a hippy town, and many Waldorf families live there. However, equally there is a very strong anti-Waldorf group with an active website looking for anything that Waldorf schools do that can be seen as spiritual, and dissing it. (Strangely I have found them the most informative of Waldorf websites, as they go to trouble to dig out some interesting and fairly hidden Steiner texts that actually increase my interest in Steiner education, although their intention is the opposite)
The “new age movement” in Britain is not nationally accepted, and is often put down as hokus pokus in the media and elsewhere sometimes with a lot of directed and malicious intent. Anything vaguely non-material is dissed and dismissed in the media, together with laughter. I was quite surprised at this, as South Africa is generally tolerant of “new age “ practices and has a strong following, particularly in the light of African spiritual practices that are luckily still widespread. Although Waldorf schools do not see themselves as “new agey”, many other people do because some of the practices apparently seem airy fairy. So I was also surprised to see how undeveloped the Steiner movement is in Britain despite being there far longer than in South Africa. Truly there is a regression, especially in the Camphill movement which has been curtailed through laws around “protecting the freedom” of people with mental health problems. Thus they are not allowed to work unless they want to, and so often spend time glued to the TV.
Although there are now a couple of state funded Steiner academies, they have had great difficulty being accepted as such, and some have given up their applications because of bad press coverage, all related to the fact that they follow a spiritual ideology. Recently both Muslim and Jewish schools have come under the same criticisms.
In recent surveys on spirituality some surprising results have emerged. New spiritual interest has been driven by immigration – not just the settlement of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from the 1950s onwards – but also more recently the growth of black-led, especially West African Pentecostalist churches, and the crowded Catholic churches as Poles joined their congregations (the Polish inflow of about 600,000 during 2004 – 2008 being the most concentrated single migration from one source into Britain ever).
This has altered the religious geography of Britain, taking London from one of the least religious areas to one of the most, and making the large towns and cities more religious than the small towns and the countryside – reversing the traditional picture. If we add to this fact that religious people have larger families (the more conservative, the larger), the growth of religion in Britain, after its long decline through most of the twentieth century, looks set to be a fact about twenty-first century Britain, although it may be mostly non-white and inner-city.
Ruskin Mills philosophy is based on Rudolf Steiner, John Ruskin and William Morris, all of whom had spiritual leanings. Biodynamic farming is deeply spiritual. So Ruskin Mill celebrates festivals and has artifacts that show some spirituality, including a green man in the forest. However, I feel that the spiritual side is hidden and minimized, which I feel is a pity. It is also unfortunately subject to public criticism, as it is dependent on public money, which is anti-spiritual in Britain. In some ways, the public financial dependence of organizations offering spiritual alternatives limits their development in Britain that is slowly becoming more secularized. Perhaps the removal of government support, despite limiting easy funds, will make these institutions find other ways to survive, and also reaffirm spiritual essence again.